What is a Computer Forensics Investigator?

Computer forensics investigators, also known as computer forensics analysts, are responsible for investigating crimes committed through the internet (or cyber crimes) through uncovering and reporting on digital data which is stored on physical equipment such as hard drives and smartphones. They may also be used to investigate and identify digital evidence for non-cyber crimes.

A computer forensics investigator examines the aftermath of a cyber crime, such as a hack or online identity theft, and helps uncover evidence and recover any data which has been lost. They use their technical skills to help retrace the steps of a crime and identify the individual or group responsible. They may also be asked to present evidence and provide expert testimony in a court case.

Computer forensic investigators are hired both by law enforcement agencies and private companies.

Job Description and Common Tasks

A computer forensics investigator helps recover digital data such as photos, emails, and documents from computers where there has been an attempt to damage that data, either through internal viruses or external damage to the physical device.

They must hold knowledge of legal issues around digital forensics, and the current laws in place around computer crimes, such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Most work in a computer lab environment.

Day-to-day tasks include:

  • Applying forensic software to affected hardware or systems to recover and analyze sensitive or confidential data.
  • Recovering sensitive data which has been deleted or encrypted.
  • Presenting information and evidence in court.
  • Investigating data trails or location data to help link illegal computer activity to groups or individuals.
  • Compiling reports on findings after data and files have been recovered from a physical data storage device.
  • Learning about the latest techniques and software available in the computer forensics field.
  • Investigating existing computer systems and networks affected by cyber crime to find weaknesses which makes the network vulnerable to hacking. This is called ethical or legal hacking.
  • How to Become a Computer Forensics Investigator

    Most computer forensics investigators hold a four year bachelor’s degree in computer forensics or a related field, such as computer science. Computer forensics degrees cover both the technical skills needed to recover sensitive data and classes about the law and legal procedures around cyber crime.

    They must be well-versed in how to use a range of operating systems, including Mac and Windows, and will often hold experience in IT roles with experience in system testing. Knowledge of coding languages and software development is also often required, and will help experts with their career prospects.

    In addition to a degree, there is a wide range of certifications and training programs available for computer forensic investigators to develop their skills. These include the GIAC (Global Information Assurance Certification), the CISSP (Certified Information System Security Professional) qualification provided by the (ISC)² and the CCE (Certified Computer Examiner) qualification created by The International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners.

    The world of computer forensics is evolving fast, and many analysts evolve their skills during the course of their career through training courses provided by institutions such as the National Computer Forensics Institute and the National Institute of Justice.

    Pros and Cons of Being A Computer Forensics Investigator

    To become a computer forensics investigator, you must hold a wide range of skills and keep up-to-date on forensic computing and a range of software such as EnCase and Cellebrite.

    There is also a demand on soft skills alongside a wide range of technical skills, including effective communication skills in order to explain complicated concepts to those who don’t hold technical knowledge. This may include law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and jurors.

    Pros of Being a Computer Forensics Investigator Include…

    The demand for computer forensic investigators is skyrocketing as cyber crimes become far more common, and digital evidence has grown in importance in criminal trials. A career in computer forensics can be lucrative and exciting as it becomes an essential part of criminal investigation and an important requirement in the private sector.

    Computer forensics is a field which changes rapidly as technology itself transforms. This means there are always opportunities to learn new techniques and skills, and there is no danger of being bored when working in the field. This also presents numerous opportunities for career advancement.

    Because of the high demand for experienced computer forensics investigators both in law enforcement and in the corporate world, those who pursue this career can expect rewarding salaries for their work.

    Cons of Being a Computer Forensics Investigator Include…

    Working to many deadlines in a high-demand role means that computer forensics investigators can be expected to work long hours in a high-pressure environment. Investigators can also be expected to often be ‘on call’ for emergency situations such as large data breaches.

    Computer forensics analysts must work in a fashion which is organized and methodical when recovering damaged files and data, and the role requires a lot of patience as the work can be time-consuming.

    While the constant evolution of technology means there is always a new method to learn, the requirement to keep up-to-date can lead to stress and pressure as the devices and operating systems investigators work on continue to transform.

    Who Employs Computer Forensics Investigators?

    The majority of computer forensics investigators work on behalf of law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal level, such as police departments. They are also hired by companies which hold sensitive data which could be breached, including law firms, banks and financial institutions.

    Those with expertise in digital forensics are high in demand, and many are able to work freelance as a consultant for private firms and institutions who have been affected by cyber crime.

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